One year ago, Devanney Haruta placed an old piano in front of Brown University’s Orwig Music Library. There it remained, in the shade of several evergreens, exposed to the elements. Today, the wood is warped and discolored. The keys are weathered and stick in place. The metal strings remain intact, but they are hopelessly out of tune. Twelve months of rain, snow, and sun have transformed this instrument into a husk of its former self.
“The decay happened a lot faster than I expected,” says Haruta, a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at Brown University. The project known as “Piano (de)composition” is no college prank: Haruta is writing her doctoral dissertation about the baby grand and its passive destruction at the hands of nature. She’s observing the piano itself, of course, and documenting its progress (if that’s the right word) on a blog. But just as important is the human reaction to it.
“There’s a lot of resistance to a piano [being harmed],” says Haruta, citing some indignant comments online. “It ties into ways that we value instruments. There’s something more symbolic about the piano, the elite nature.”
Haruta grew up in Connecticut and learned to play the oboe. “I grew up playing instruments,” she recalls. For her bachelor’s degree, she double majored in music and mathematics at Brown and played in the wind symphony. She interned for a time at the Tippet Arts Center in Montana, then earned her master’s in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University.
She became fascinated by similar experiments to “(de)composition,” showcasing the fate of acoustic tools. In 1996, the artist Steve Heck built a sculpture out of old pianos at the Burning Man event. The late multimedia artist Nam June Paik fashioned sculptures out of instruments and other materials or deliberately mistreated them during performance pieces. Haruta wondered: “When is it okay to destroy instruments?”
She originally considered guitars, which have a long history of getting smashed by rock stars on stage, but a piano somehow felt more appropriate. She proposed the concept to her advisor, and soon after, Brown’s music department offered her an old piano already marked for the landfill. A space was designated on the lawn outside the Orwig building, where the music department is headquartered. The piano is mostly hidden by trees and nearly invisible from nearby Hope Street, but any passerby can approach the installation, examine its anatomy, and attempt to play a measure or two.
Yes, the piano is degrading at an accelerated rate, likely due to New England’s general humidity and last summer’s heavy rains – but the project has surprised Haruta in other ways, too. “One thing I’m learning, as it falls apart, is how a piano is made,” she says. For example, the ivory-colored key plates fell off quickly, implying water-soluble glue. Also, the lid isn’t a single slab of wood, but three separate slabs fastened together. This construction is now obvious, as each piece individually arcs, like a trio of half-pipes laid over the case.
Haruta, now in her third year in the doctoral program, can only imagine what the piano will look like in a few years, but she plans to keep the instrument where it is until she finishes her dissertation, which will take time. Many people have interacted with the piano already, pressing the keys or percussing directly on the strings. The blog even shows a picture of a small snowman on top. “It’s not just an art piece to look at and admire,” says Haruta. “Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”
To learn more about “Piano (de)composition,” visit Sites.Google.com/brown.edu/PianoDecomposition/home/about#
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